After reading, ages ago now, Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy, I wanted to read some more Hungarian literature, and now I have. Embers is a very different novel, and Sándor Márai is clearly a very different novelist, but this too is an elegy for a disappearing time and place, and it’s quite lovely.
Here it is the Austro-Hungarian empire we are mourning, along with the General, who has been shut up in a castle in the Hungarian forest for forty years. The days of great hunting parties are gone, but the Sèvres is still there and ready to be taken out, the rooms aired out, the table set for a meeting with Konrad, the General’s best friend, back after all this time.
The story of the General and Konrad is excellent, Márai’s sense of tension perfect, and the telling of it just right. I didn’t jump up and down about this novel, but I have no complaints. The themes of family, friendship, duty, and the insurmountable barriers between people—excellent, excellent.
But I think what was even better than all the rest was the theme of nationalism and longing for a home that no longer exists. Konrad tells the General:
“Vienna,” he says. “To me it was the tuning fork for the entire world. Saying the word Vienna was like striking a tuning fork and then listening to find out what tone it called forth in the person I was talking to. It was how I tested people. If there was no response, this was not the kind of person I liked.”
It is a strange inversion. World War I, which would put an end to the empire, was sparked by nationalistic actions on behalf of an ethnic minority. But here we have Konrad, a true citizen of the empire as a whole: half Austrian, half Polish, growing up in Galicia. When he says his homeland no longer exists, it is true—“My homeland was Poland, Vienna, this house, the barracks in the city, Galicia, and Chopin.” The new world that has grown up around these two old men is meaningless for him.*
Strikingly, Embers was written and published in the midst of World War II. Just a few years after the General and Konrad reminisce over their lives as servants of the emperor and lovers of nineteenth-century Vienna, the General’s homeland will come under the rule of a Stalinist dictatorship.
*Very reminiscent, for me, of the film Underground: “Once, there was a country.”